Far From Bashar
| 73 min
A few years ago, the al-Mahamids fled Bashar al-Assad and Syria to settle in Montreal. A nuanced portrayal of a courageous family coping with a seemingly interminable war, thousands of kilometres away, that continues to affect their lives.
About the film
Several years ago, after taking part in the mass uprisings against Bashar al-Assad, Adnan al-Mahamid had to flee Syria with his wife, Basmah, and their four children. Now settled in Montreal, the family opens their door to filmmaker Pascal Sanchez. They’ve adjusted to life in a peaceful city, but Adnan and Basmah still fear for loved ones back in Syria whose status and whereabouts remain unknown. The war that’s thousands of kilometres away continues to haunt them, surging suddenly to the fore in a conversation, Skype call or Facebook feed. Far from Bashar chronicles an endearing family as they go about their lives, tormented by a distant and seemingly interminable conflict.
Adnan al-Mahamid, his wife, Basmah, and their four children fled the Syrian city of Daraa for Canada in October 2014. An engineer and ardent pro-democracy activist, Adnan took part in the mass uprisings against Bashar al-Assad. But his desire for freedom came at a heavy price as the regime came down hard on him and many of his friends, arresting or abducting them. Fearing for their lives, the family embarked on the long road of exile before eventually settling in Montreal.
The film opens on a sombre anniversary as Adnan painfully relives his arrest and incarceration, events that took place three years ago to the day. “It hangs like a curse over those who have survived it,” he says.
As 15-year-old Basel, 14-year-old Raniah, 10-year-old Saja and 4-year-old Ali quickly take to life in a peaceful city, making friends with the kids at their local school, Adnan and Basmah fear for loved ones back in Syria whose status and whereabouts are unknown.
After a few years living far from Bashar al-Assad, how does one go about reconciling a new life with wartime trauma? Adnan perfects his English as he studies social work at McGill University; Basmah learns French as she keeps on top of developments back home. The kids are in an immigrant entry class, effortlessly switching from English to French to Arabic. At the apartment, the war in Syria is both distant and vividly present, surging suddenly to the fore through a conversation, Skype call or Facebook feed.
The family generously opened their door to filmmaker Pascal Sanchez. Built around close observations of their daily lives paired with an exploration of Adnan’s social media posts, Far from Bashar chronicles an endearing household tormented by a conflict whose end is, alas, nowhere in sight.
To date, the Syrian war has claimed more than 350,000 lives, with at least 50,000 more people “forcibly disappeared” or detained by the regime. Capturing the apparent ordinariness of life today for the al-Mahamids, Sanchez’s documentary is a moving testimonial to the love that unites them and from which they draw the strength to go on, far from Bashar.
I first imagined Far from Bashar as the daydream of a Syrian child who’s been plunged into new surroundings, haunted by the war he’s just left and eager to embrace the life he’s just begun. I wanted to make a film about thought. To film thought as if it were an actual landscape, full of people, animals, flowers and trees. At a time when Canada was still largely closed off to refugees, I began looking for such a child in Montreal. I asked around endlessly. At long last, I met the al-Mahamids: Adnan, Basmah and their children, Ali, Basel, Raniah and Saja.
I was struck by their story. In particular, by the militant Adnan, his experience both in Syria and here in Montreal, his social commitment, his faith in tomorrow. I also noted the resilience of the kids, their liveliness, their desire to be here. I saw the presence and courage of their mother, Basmah. This family, I sensed, could help my fledgling ideas take shape. Because I saw in them something of myself.
The project got quickly underway. They opened their doors to me, invited me into their home. Since I don’t speak Arabic, I often filmed with little idea as to what was being said, relying instead on body language and affectionate gestures. I captured Raniah at school with her brother Basel, going full speed ahead with their lives. Saja would watch her parents closely, becoming the documentarian’s alter ego, in a way. The family’s apartment was bursting with life. But there was also tremendous vulnerability, pain, a terrible fear for loved ones left behind. I told myself we know nothing about this war—that our ignorance was downright obscene. That the repressive regime was hideously, incredibly violent. And this was something the al-Mahamids had to cope with daily as they struggled to build their new lives. In filming them, I wanted to pay tribute to their courage, humanity and immense love for one another.
There were days when the suffering refused to be ignored, would come surging back into the present. Adnan would relive his arrest and incarceration, the pain of each moment springing vividly to life. These days from the past would fill the air. We talked about it. The scene that starts the film is one such day. Adnan, improvising, softly addresses Ala, a friend of his who’s still in prison. He mentions his brothers. His words are beautiful, profound. He also shares his writing with me. When I ask him why he agreed to be filmed, he answers: “Because we are good people.” I understood, then, that he was alluding to the racism and stereotypes his family must cope with at every turn. If they opened their door to me, it was also to change these perceptions.
Far from Bashar won’t change the course of the war in Syria. It may, however, succeed in making some of us a little more open to those affected by it.
Pascal Sanchez is a passionate photographer who first ventured into documentary when he set off to chronicle western Canada’s francophone minority communities. Upon his return to Quebec, he was selected to compete in the Radio-Canada TV series La Course destination monde, which sent him on a six-month jaunt across the planet, video camera in hand. Combining a frenzied production pace with full artistic freedom, the Course proved an extremely fertile film school for Sanchez, who made some 20 shorts during his stint, ultimately winning the Sodec–Telefilm Canada award. The prize money helped fund his first auteur short, Un arbre avec un chapeau (2000), which screened at Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
His next film was L’île (2002), a portrait of an elderly man exiled from his island home by illness. This was followed by multiple turns as director, screenwriter and producer, working in both documentary and fiction. In 2008, Manifestes en série won the Gémeaux for best director (public affairs/documentary series). In 2010, La Reine malade (The Ailing Queen), Sanchez’s intimate documentary about a Quebec beekeeper alarmed by the dwindling numbers of bees, won the ÉcoCaméra award at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) and the Gémeaux for best documentary (nature/science).
Sanchez donned the hats of writer, director, DOP and producer for his next documentary feature, Les Vaillants (The Undaunted), which opened RIDM 2015. Chronicling a low-income housing project in Montreal’s Saint-Michel district, the film avoids clichés to deliver a heartfelt, humanist tribute to the community’s vitality, solidarity and fighting spirit.
Sanchez resumed this approach for his fourth documentary feature, Far from Bashar (2020), a shattering portrait of a Syrian refugee family who have recently settled in Montreal. Far from Bashar comes on the heels of his short film Dog (2019), which screened in official competition at the Palm Springs ShortFest and the Whistler Film Festival, receiving an honourable mention at the latter. Sanchez is currently writing his first fiction feature.
Producer and Executive Producer
Photo : Liam Valdès
In 2018, after 15 years at the NFB, Nathalie Cloutier was appointed Executive Producer of the French Program’s Documentary Studio. She has always championed a flexible creative process and supported a diverse group of auteurs, an approach that has yielded a number of bold endeavours. At the NFB, she’s produced several interactive projects, including Here at Home: In Search of the Real Cost of Homelessness, a multi-award-winning website about homelessness, and The Hole Story Interactive, a website that accompanied the feature-length doc of the same name by Richard Desjardins and Robert Monderie. In addition to her work on interactive productions, Nathalie has produced and co-produced numerous feature-length documentaries that have garnered attention both in Canada and internationally. They include The Amina Profile by Sophie Deraspe (Sundance 2015), Gulîstan, Land of Roses by Zaynê Akyol (Doc Alliance Selection Award, Locarno 2016), Freelancer on the Front Lines by Santiago Bertolino (closing film at RIDM 2016), and A Delicate Balance by Christine Chevarie-Lessard (Women Inmates’ Award, RIDM 2018). She also produced Waseskun, by Steve Patry, a Best Feature Length Documentary nominee at the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards. In collaboration with Nadagam Films of Val d’Or, in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, in 2018 she launched the 5 Shorts Project, for which five local female directors each made a very short documentary for the web. Her most recent productions are Kenbe La: Jusqu’à la Victoire by Will Prosper, Le fond de l’air by Simon Beaulieu and Far from Bashar by Pascal Sanchez.
Nathalie Cloutier first came to work at the NFB as a production coordinator in 2003. After completing the documentary program at the Institut national de l’image et du son (INIS) in Montreal, she returned to the NFB as a producer at the Documentary Studio in 2010. Earlier in her career, she studied arts and literature and collaborated on several theatrical productions. Her experience directing short films for the 1998–1999 season of the Radio-Canada television program Course destination monde inspired her to pursue a career in film.
Ali, Saja, Raniah and Basel al-Mahamid
Serge Nakauchi Pelletier
Research, Script and Cinematography
Additional Sound Recording
Technical Consultant – Camera
Technical Support – Editing
Assistant Sound Editor and Additional Sound Design
Joulnar El Husseini
Meriem Achour Bouakkaz
Jean Paul Vialard
Hilda Eddé Debbané
Kate Gwyneth Suganob
Amal Elsana Alh’jooj
French Program – Documentary Studio
A National Film Board of Canada production
About the NFB
The NFB is Canada’s public producer and distributor of award-winning documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences, working with talented creators across the country. The NFB is taking action to combat systemic racism and become a more open and diverse organization, while working to strengthen Indigenous-led production and gender equity in film and digital media. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including 12 Oscars. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.